U.S. sanctions may prevent Iran's expansion, despite exit from Syria

A report by the Meir Amit Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center said Tehran's ambitions to expand in Syria could be bucked through sanctions and internal protests.

Supporters of Maryam Rajavi, president-elect of the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI), attend a rally in Villepinte, near Paris, France, June 30, 2018. (photo credit: REUTERS/REGIS DUVIGNAU)
Supporters of Maryam Rajavi, president-elect of the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI), attend a rally in Villepinte, near Paris, France, June 30, 2018.
Though Iran’s morale is high with the US’s withdrawal from Syria, a combination of sanctions and internal domestic pressures may prevent it from filling the vacuum, an intelligence center report said late Monday.
The Meir Amit Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center report said that Iranian regime officials’ public statements on the issue have been limited to date, but that it is clear from domestic media coverage that the US withdrawal is viewed as a victory and a surprise.
Iran’s Foreign Ministry spokesman has already issued a statement that the US presence in Syria “lacked logic,” and a few other more minor officials have made comments, but its Supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, President Hassan Rouhani and others have remained silent.
Out of concern that the Trump administration could reverse course if publicly embarrassed, the report said that these top officials may wait to weigh in publicly until US forces are actually withdrawn.
In addition, the report said that the sudden withdrawal announcement caught them by surprise.
Still, the report said it is clear that since the US entered the fray in Syria, a primary goal of the Islamic Republic has been to ensure that the American military presence did not stick around long-term, even as it took advantage of that same military force against ISIS.
Absent a US presence, the report stated, Tehran has potentially a much freer hand to use its land bridge from Iran to Syria and Lebanon to establish power centers and to move weaponry and militias closer to Israel’s border.
To date, Iran has mainly used the land route of Albukamal route, which goes from Baghdad through the Euphrates Valley and passes through the Albukamal crossing, to get weapons and supplies to Syria and Lebanon.
Though this was considered a substantial achievement and improvement over full reliance on transporting weapons by air, the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) has always preferred to use the Tanf route if it ever opened up.
The Tanf route, leading from Baghdad to Damascus and going through the Tanf border crossing, near the tri-border area between Iraq, Jordan, and Syria, was off-limits as long as the US military presence physically blocked access.
It is a shorter route than the Albukamal route and avoids potential threats from some of the remainder of ISIS forces, said the Meir Amit center.
With the US withdrawal, the IRGC may press to substantially increase transporting weapons and supplies using the shorter Tanf route, which would also force Israel to keep an eye on multiple passages.
Yet, at the same time, the report said that “in the short term Iran will continue with a cautious policy mostly based on foreign [non-Iranian] Shi’ite militias and on local Syrian militias in order to deepen its influence in Syria.”
The intelligence center explained that US sanctions have exacerbated internal Iranian tensions about how much it should be investing its own blood and treasure in foreign adventures.
At a time when the Islamic Republic’s economy is at a significant low from sanctions, it is harder for the IRGC to justify fighting in foreign areas, let alone increasing its foreign presence, said the report.
Overall, even as the regime has succeeded in containing nation-wide protests from representing an imminent danger to its rule, it is still sensitive to the issue and likely to opt to rely on proxies in the Syria and Lebanon sphere for the near future.
For example, the report cited a public statement by Jafar al-Hassini, spokesman for an Iraqi Shi’ite militia using the name Hezbollah, which said that after the US pullout, his forces would fill the vacuum, including protecting Kurdish forces which until now had been protected by Iran.
Further, the report pointed out that US forces to date had not actually directly confronted Iranian forces.
In other words, the main foreign power limits on Tehran’s activities in Syria were pressures from Israel and Russia – pressures which will continue.